Milford's Beth-El center tackles local food insecurity

The Beth-El Center cares for and meeting the needs of those experiencing hunger and homeless in the Milford area.

The Beth-El Center cares for and meeting the needs of those experiencing hunger and homeless in the Milford area.

Contributed photo

MILFORD — Food insecurity is the top concern for many people in Milford, Stratford and Fairfield, according to the 2022 Community Health Needs Assessment by Yale New Haven Health.

The data was compiled from 125 surveys sent to the health departments, St. Vincent's Medical Center parish nurses and the Southwest Community Health Center.

"Food insecurity and hunger are thought of being two different things, but just because you are experiencing food insecurity doesn't mean you have reached the point of hunger," said Jennifer Paradis, executive director of the Beth-El homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Milford. "They are different enough to where different resources are needed. So Beth-El and different organizations in Milford do respond to these things to a two-pronged approach."

Hunger is about meeting the immediate need, explained Paradis, and Beth-El does this through its soup kitchen, where servers provide daily free meals, seven days a week.

"When we talk about food insecurity, it's really talking about how do we ensure that the daily, weekly, monthly budgets of households are such to where they do know their next meal is coming from," she said. "Whether that be from their earned income, SNAP benefits, places like our soup kitchen, all of those things depending on the day or week of the month it is and what resources they have available at the end of the month."

According to the community assessment, eight percent of Milford residents received food from services during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 22 percent of residents have low availability of affordable high quality fruits and vegetables. Five percent of people in Milford are below the poverty level. Also, 11 percent of the community lacks reliable transportation, 22 percent are facing financial difficulty or "just getting by" and 11 percent would still be in debt if they sold all their major possessions and turned them into cash to pay off debts.

"We know the impact of hunger on your mental, physical health and your ability to engage in all of the things we do every day, productivity levels if you will. Hunger is at the center of that and being able to fulfill that as a basic need is a necessity."

A question Paradis and many other agencies are trying to answer is how to create systems where food insecurity is at a minimum.

"This all intersects with lots of things we talk about frequently like housing access and having all these pieces be affordable to the households that are in need of that," she said. "I think people get surprised by the number we see in Milford."

Paradis said there are many factors why food insecurities are on top of many households' minds, and one might be the rising cost of food.

"People are having new and different decisions about what they are getting and why," she said. "Also, what we see in attempts to resolve those daily needs like food access. You often put off those larger expenses like rent or healthcare, we see that with food in relation with housing quite a bit. Food insecurity and hunger are often a pre-indicator in a home that can cause not just more instability but can cause a traumatic impact on that household."

When thinking about food insecurity and hunger, Paradis said it is important to understand that it is all related to affordable healthcare, housing, education, financial security and other factors.

"What are we seeing about food in the area and what is this saying about other needs that exist within the community, and how can we address the immediate concerns and the systems at the same time," she said. "We want to meet the moment, we want to meet the hunger need daily. But we also want to do more than maintain. We want to be driving down those numbers of people who are experiencing hunger, and we do that by finding and addressing systemic root causes of these issues."

An adage followed by Beth-El is to "meet them where they are but don't leave them there."

"Meet people where they are and make sure they can access food daily but also have easily accessible opportunities to reduce their food insecurities moving forward," said Paradis. "It could be making sure they are connected to SNAP benefits, making sure they have applied for disability, entitlement programs they might qualify to For those who are homeless, they don't have an address, so they don't have SNAP benefits, so their homelessness is causing the hunger not the reverse of that."

Another aspect might revolve around workforce development, she said.

"Are you unemployed or underemployed? That is so much of what we see, because the cost of living is so much higher than what wage-earning is at this time," she said. "Many of the folks we serve at the center are employed full time or employed part-time working multiple times a week and the reason why they still accessing (assistance) is that wages are so low compared to the cost that they still need supplemental services."

Hunger, food access, homelessness and other social issues are at the core of its community responses and are not for one agency to address, stated Paradis. 

"So what can the general person do to help in these large issues, is first is to understand that food insecurity exists everywhere and that we need to challenge ourselves on what we think that looks like," she said. "Food insecurities do not have a face or a stereotypical way of presenting itself. The second thing is to know what your local resources are. If you are in a school system, church group, or affiliated with a civic group, through those groups, try to understand and search out what resources are available in your community because the more you know, the more you can share.

There also needs to be a low barrier to access assistance, she said. That means people should not have to prove themselves to receive services.

"We have this idea that having high barriers to access will mean that folks who do qualify for the access need the services, but that is incorrect," she said. "What happens is the folks with the most privilege end up accessing the services, and the folks that don't access the services, are the ones that are the most marginalized."